In Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky subjects the promises of the European Enlightenment to a withering critique. Among other "lies," he ridicules the notion that complete personal freedom leads not to wicked actions because of self-centeredness, but to a realization that it is in one's best interests to act righteously: "If only one's eyes were opened to his real, normal interests, he would at once cease doing vile things and would immediately become good and honorable, because being enlightened … he would indeed see his personal advantage in goodness."

As human history has repeatedly shown, however, letting humanity choose whatever works to its own advantage results in the primacy of self-interest and personal gain. Unless someone is obliged as well as enabled to see what is good, he will not freely choose it, because it will not immediately seem to be in his self interest.

Within the heart of Christian ethics, there lies the task of answering important questions about what the Christian should value the most, accept as the highest good, and cling to in love.

Paul said it best in Philippians 4:8: "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."

You wouldn't think this would be too hard, and many thinkers have said as much. For Epictetus, a Greek contemporary of Paul, human nature contained "a distinct portion of the essence of God." He reminded readers not to be "ignorant of your noble birth." Cicero wrote on this theme a century earlier, when he argued that there is a "spark" of deity in the human soul, enabling us to ascend eventually to ultimate goodness. These ancients sound like Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, who held that human beings have a fundamental orientation toward goodness, truth, and love, and that at soul's bottom there exists an orientation toward God. From this point of view, people merely have to be reminded of the good, and they will seek it.

But if this were the case, why would believers have to be told by Jesus "to hunger and thirst after righteousness"? Or to grant mercy and forgiveness to an offender? Or to strive to be "pure in heart"? Though we are made in the image of God, we do not have a fundamental orientation toward good. We are preeminently self-oriented. We want our own good, our own kind of justice, our own version of love and loving. Paul recognized this, which is why he echoed Isaiah: "There is no one righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one" (Rom. 3:10-12).

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A fundamental part of Christian growth depends on teaching believers not only to do good, but also to distinguish between various goods, and to seek the highest good among them. How should we value temporal goods like family, music, politics, literature, art, and sports? On the one hand, we know the joy they can bring us. On the other hand, they often seem like distractions from spiritual life.

In our culture, it is difficult to show that the exercise of personal freedom as the greatest good does not result in a person's best interests. A fundamental part of Christian growth depends on teaching believers how to make the distinction between continuing to build a kingdom of the self and seeking what is good, pure, and true from the Creator's perspective—and then pursuing it. This is the quest Christians today call "Christian living." In an ocean of "how-to" resources—books and cds for women, men, teens, and married couples on every conceivable area of human behavior—we are given personal and witty tips on acquiring a positive image, solving family issues, living a holy life, and meeting the moral challenges of our day.

While self-help Christian living literature can help us, both Paul's assessment of human nature and our own experience suggest that we need to think more deeply about these issues. Few have thought more deeply than Augustine about how the human person may relate rightly to the objects of human love—temporal goods, oneself, one's neighbor, and God. While Augustine is often thought of as a philosopher and theologian, he was a pastor for most of his life. Matters that dealt with sustaining faith, practicing Christian virtues, and teaching the truth were especially important to him, just as they are for believers today.

First things first

In the course of his religious journey to Christianity, Augustine recognized that no object or physical thing can be good or bad in itself. Rather, he acknowledged two things: (1) that it is our will that takes good things and makes them bad by our absorption with them and thus our perversion of them, and (2) the relation of our affections to the sensible world can only be determined by having a proper relation to all physical things in light of their Creator.

Augustine taught that if anything exists, it exists because it was given existence (and is sustained) by God. He wrote a book completely devoted to the issue, On the Nature of the Good. In it, he says: "Every nature is good, and every good thing is from God. Therefore, all nature is from God."

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He elaborates: "All life, potency, health, memory, virtue, intelligence, tranquility, abundance, light, sweetness, measure, beauty, peace—all these things whether great or small … come from the Lord." What makes things good is their right use in the scheme in which God has placed them. Whoever makes a bad use of good things does not make them bad, but merely abuses good things. Augustine would say that we sin when we place anything or anyone in the wrong order of goods—that is, if the cleanliness of our home is more important than housing needy children, or if we follow the dictates of our career over the covenant of marriage. Regarding things as more important than they are is what leads to obsessiveness, possessivenesss, or oppressiveness.

Augustine builds on this perspective in his book On Christian Teaching. He makes a distinction between things that are to be enjoyed and things that are to be used. To enjoy something is to love it and gain happiness from it simply for what it is. To use something means to employ it to obtain the thing you love or gain happiness from. The chief distinction between the two is that "to enjoy something is to hold fast to it in love for its own sake"; everything else is a means to what we should hold fast to or love. In poetic form, Augustine expresses this distinction in his Confessions:

What is the object of my love? I asked the earth, and it said, "It is not I." … I asked the sea, the deeps, the living creatures that move about, and they responded, "We are not your God; look beyond us." … I asked heaven, sun, moon, and stars, and they said, "Nor are we the God whom you seek." Then tell me of my God who you are not, tell me something about him. And with a great voice they cried out, "He made us."

We understand, therefore, that the only thing to be enjoyed, or loved for its own sake, is what is unchangeable and eternal: God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the most important of all good "things." To love anything else for its own sake, including one's self, is to confuse the creation with the Creator. It is an abuse to center your deepest affection on anything God has made as if it were God. In doing so, we will never find the fulfillment we seek from that part of creation. We will always expect more from it—no matter how good or noble or innocent—than it can ever deliver, because things are signs that are supposed to lead us to God. Thus, we must not confuse any aspect of the world—which is itself a sign—with the one who gave the sign and meant for the sign to fulfill itself by pointing us to the true Fulfiller.

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At the foundation of right Christian living, as Augustine would have it, is how we order the things we love. We tend to naturally love ourselves, along with others or things that bring us happiness or fulfillment. These are all good things—unless they prevent us from recognizing and loving the Source of these things. We may become so obsessed with human love or our own desires that we ignore the one who gives value and order to the use of human love and desires. However, as soon as we "love God with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul" we discover that we must also love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This is the double commandment that Christ gave his disciples. Only after we approach God with our highest love and affection will we be able to put what we love in proper order, starting first with our neighbor. Listen to Augustine directly:

So you should not love yourself on your own account but on account of the one (God) who is the most proper object of your love. Another person should not be angry if you love him, too, on account of God. For the divinely established rule (regula) of love says, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," but first love God "with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." … So a person who loves his neighbor properly should, in concert with him, aim to love God with all his heart, soul, and mind.

In other words, to love one's neighbor rightly—the basis of all ethical behavior—we must first love God, and then "refer" all our other loves to God. This is the ethical pinnacle for Augustine. We will always rightly love our neighbors (which could mean anyone) and treat them justly when we love them in God and for God's sake. The same principle holds true for our use of any material thing.

Ultimately, the critical question to living out the good, the true, and the beautiful is: What does it mean to love rightly? Augustine learned that any ideology or philosophy was ultimately inadequate for a spiritual ascent to God, where the answers to such questions lie. Rather, the act of love on which Christ had staked all of human ethics should be the focus of a lifelong engagement. The Cross and its implications challenge the great lie that Dostoevsky warned us about: that "man needs one thing only—independent desire, wherever that desire may lead him. But the devil only knows that desire. …"

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The 'double-love' rule

In truth, the result of Augustinian love of God and neighbor requires a form of self-denial, in continuity with Jesus' hard sayings. This self-denial argues that we can only have the good by not grasping anything or anyone through domination, manipulation, or unlimited acquisition. Instead, the rule of "double-love"—love of God and neighbor—brings restraint, humility, respect, and trust. To follow this ethic produces a just and pure-minded person, because he has, as Augustine put it, ordered his loves.

This person will most value the higher things (such as the virtues of faith, hope, and love) over the lower things (such as bodily pleasures, ambition, and acquisitions), because his greatest affection is for the eternal and changeless Creator, who is the Highest Love.

Augustine's insights don't tell us how to solve the specific dilemmas we face. His teaching tells us that the tension we feel is healthy. It means we don't want lesser things to replace the greater thing. When our loves are properly ordered, all other relationships and objects of our desire will have their rightful place for what they are, as opposed to what we want to make them. This ordering will, in turn, provide us with the inner fulfillment that we seek, evidenced by the acuity of a purified vision and a greater comprehension of our place within the order of creation. In other words, our love for God and our neighbor will prevent us from being manipulated by less important things.

The great question that philosophers have asked since Socrates—"What is the good life?"—is the exact question Augustine raised for his listeners at the end of a sermon. His answer was no less philosophical than theological: "To love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind, and to love your brother and your sister as yourself."

Daniel H. Williams is professor of religion at Baylor University and the author of Evangelicals and Tradition (Baker Academic).

Related Elsewhere:

Christian History & Biography has an issue on Augustine.

Other articles on spirituality include:

Listening for the Whisper | How to break the addiction to spectacle. (September 20, 2007)
God's Writing Life | Our Creator has chosen a medium that is the most challenging of all. (Philip Yancey, September 13, 2007)
'Sculpting in Time' | Russian filmmaker sought to harrow the soul. (September 12, 2007)
Blessed Are Those Who Hunger | Quotations to stir heart and mind. (September 10, 2007)
Allegorical Fantasy: Mortal Dealings with Cosmic Questions | An interview with Madeline L'Engle. (September 7, 2007)
Why We Love Football | Grace and idolatry run crossing patterns in the new American pastime. (September 7, 2007)

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